Louisiana governor pardons plaintiff in landmark Supreme Court racial segregation case

By Kathleen Flynn

NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) -Louisiana's governor on Wednesday posthumously pardoned Homer Plessy, the plaintiff in the landmark 1896 U.S. Supreme Court case that upheld the "separate but equal" doctrine and laid the legal foundation for decades of racial segregation.

Governor John Bel Edwards, who signed the pardon at a ceremony in New Orleans near the spot where Plessy was arrested in 1892 for riding a whites-only train car, traced a line from the historic case to racial inequities in U.S. society today.

"The stroke of my pen on this pardon, while momentous, it doesn't erase generations of pain and discrimination," Bel Edwards said. "We can all acknowledge we have a long ways to go, but this pardon is a step in the right direction."

The official act follows a state board's unanimous decision in November to recommend a pardon of Plessy, who was one-eighth Black and refused to sit in a Blacks-only car in violation of a Jim Crow-era law aimed at marginalizing Black citizens after the Civil War.

Plessy, a shoemaker who was active in a civil rights group, was immediately arrested. His case was heard in Louisiana by Judge John Howard Ferguson, who ruled against Plessy, setting off a chain of events that led to the 1896 Supreme Court case.

Descendants of the Plessy and Ferguson families were at the event. Plessy, who was 30 years old at the time of his arrest, pleaded guilty in 1897 following the Supreme Court ruling and paid a $25 fine. He died in 1925.

"I feel like my feet are not touching the ground today because the ancestors are carrying me," said Keith Plessy, a first cousin three times removed from Plessy. "Homer Plessy will have his way today."

In the Plessy vs. Ferguson case, the Supreme Court judges ruled that separate public facilities could be provided to different racial groups as long as they were of equal quality.

The ruling provided the legal basis for segregating schools and other public facilities and held until the Supreme Court's decision in a 1954 case known as Brown v. Board of Education, which started the process of ending racial segregation.

Governor Bel Edwards and other speakers at the event said the pardon highlighted the importance of acknowledging and educating the public about past injustices rather than promoting a sanitized version of history.

In some U.S. school districts, conservatives have sought to ban teaching of concepts from critical race theory, an academic framework that examines how racism has shaped American society.

"We cannot undo the wrongs of the past but we can and should acknowledge them and learn from them," said Phoebe Ferguson, a descendant of Judge Ferguson.

(reporting by Nathan Layne in Wilton, Connecticut; Editing by Tomasz Janowski and Cynthia Osterman)